ECW welcomes guest author Mike Busovicki
All warriors want to know their efforts were not in vain and the deprivations they endured were worth the outcome. As the Civil War metamorphosed into a great insatiable beast, devouring ever more resources, lives, treasure, and innocence, those involved in that conflict inevitably asked, “What is this all for?” Faced with endless rows of graves and ever-growing casualty lists, what answer could possibly suffice? Entire towns might be in mourning when their local militia marched off as part of a volunteer regiment and suffered catastrophic losses in a horrific battle. The country was engulfed in a vast sea of heartbreak. What were the limits we were able to sacrifice?
President Lincoln unquestionably felt the same cold comfort in his own answers to that question as well, for he dedicated his entire address at Gettysburg to framing that question another way – What principles do we hold as imperative in America? Is this fight anything less than a renewal of the foundation of this nation? Must we resort to arms every time we diverge from those principles? How do we prepare for additional hardship as the contest of wills grinds on interminably? Though he elucidated the answers to those questions so thoroughly and succinctly, even Lincoln felt doubts that mere words could cover the scope and the scale of the matter. In the text of one of the most indispensable speeches in history, the great orator confesses that “the world will little note, nor long remember” their attempts to answer what the great struggle signified and what cost they were willing to pay for it.
We are going to struggle to find meaning in the twenty years we spent in Afghanistan. As a Post – 9/11 Era Veteran, people often ask me how I feel about the unfolding events or for some insight on putting the upheaval into context. My first thoughts when the news broke that we were leaving Afghanistan for good were the same words I’d expressed to a fellow Veteran the night Usama Bin Laden was killed more than ten years earlier: “I hope it was all worth it.” I said the same thing later that same year when major combat operations in Iraq were declared over (though armed violence has yet to stop in that country). “What a waste” was the second thought, considering how much had been lost in the process.
Many Veterans’ reaction to the scenes of terror and agony from overseas has alternately been anger, hopelessness, and a renewed sense of loss. I’ve read that Vietnam Veterans had lots of negative emotions from their war triggered by watching the fall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on TV, and though I didn’t experience Vietnam personally, I can definitely see what they mean. Speaking recently with comrades, I’ve found it doesn’t matter that almost two decades have passed since some of us were in Southwest Asia fighting a rather undefined “War on Terror”. Some specific memories may have blurred, but that doesn’t mean our feelings of frustration, rage, and exhaustion associated with war aren’t imprinted any less deeply.
I was an Infantryman who spent a total of 24 months in ground combat operations in Iraq. I probably left that war with more questions than answers. And I still do not regret choosing the profession of arms and defending the greatest nation on Earth. But after that experience, there has never been doubt in my mind that war – especially when experienced up close and personally – is only about destruction, and never about building anything. If you want to actually build something, pick a different tool. I have no question that Civil War Veterans felt the same way. For one, the country they destroyed was their own. The refugees and impoverished displaced by the war were their neighbors and extended family. The former enemy became their countrymen again (if reluctantly). One can’t help but be moved when faced with such ruin.
The Civil War, for those who actually fought in it, did not last from 1861 until 1865. It lasted for the rest of their lives. Those who had limbs blown off labored to not be defeated by that war every day. Those mentally scarred by the nightmares and trauma of combat camped with it every night. Civil War Veterans tirelessly lobbied for enhanced compensation for the maimed and fostered the memory of those who had answered the last roll call in monuments, parades, and anniversary services. They wouldn’t have spent decades doing so without having felt there was an account somewhere, still unbalanced, between what was paid and what was gained. Such is the way of survivor’s guilt.
Participation in these tributes was a manifestation of their unceasing quest to find significance in the battle they and their comrades had borne. There had to be something more valuable than possession of a hill overlooking an unknown town, or the junction of some great thoroughfares, or maybe a few yards of farmland that had been transformed into a slaughterhouse. They wanted people to remember the sacrifices and the lives of the fallen. At the start of the Civil War, the U.S. population was roughly 31 million people. No less than 3.4 million of them (at least 11% of the population overall) served in the ranks by the end of the conflict, though the percentage of southerners serving was far higher.[i] Thousands more served as nurses and as part of relief organizations to attend the sick and the maimed. The proportion of American society who were personally involved is unmatched. Contrast these figures with the one-half of one percent of the U.S. population is currently serving on active duty, and many of those have served multiple tours of duty.[ii] Meanwhile, under ten percent of the Americans today have ever worn the uniform in any capacity; far fewer engaged in actual combat.[iii]
And yet Civil War Veterans still demonstrated the fear that the price of freedom was being lost on Americans. Why else would their fraternal organizations and auxiliaries appoint officers dedicated to historical and patriotic education? They still needed to find meaning in the sacrifices made and to educate Americans about the costs of choosing the gun rather than choosing diplomacy. Their lifelong quest confirms that there is no quick nor easy answer to “What was it all for?” Still, this may be some means of consolation for those of us who have not found quick reconciliation for shortcomings in our own time. The qualities of resilience, discipline, and the ability to improvise that served us well in uniform will serve us well again.
Civil War Veterans undoubtedly grappled with a sense of loss – not only for fallen comrades but for the facets of their own lives that were given up; for the other paths they may have taken, or the for family they could have raised. “Oh, what might have been” crossed the minds of many. To mitigate feelings of doubt and unfulfillment, many threw themselves into fraternal organizations. There was no way to bring back those who had passed away. But Veterans organizations largely embraced community enrichment; if not always literally, at least metaphorically the country could be rebuilt. And though it was tragic that many were lost, it did not mean there could never be happiness and prosperity again. And the passion felt in loss could be reinvented in a new sense of purpose.
The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was the largest of these Veteran organizations. The GAR and their auxiliaries were centered around the principles of Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty. Fraternity might be the memory of comrades who needed a drink from your canteen and some encouragement on a long forced march; now that comrade might need someone to lean on figuratively when finding it hard to carry on after the war. Charity was provided by those who were able to earn an honest living and could share with those who were less fortunate, including the establishment of homes for invalided Veterans. The sense that the nation owes a debt to its Veterans is largely a credit to this time period, a legacy they would be proud of. Their loyalty tied everything else together – continuously reaffirming their allegiance to a united country, rather than any other ideology, party, or person. That legacy continues today, as does the enduring message that comrades and their sacrifices will not be forgotten.
By holding these values sacred, these Veterans transcended the objectives of the conflict itself and constructed a new American society. This was the result of hard lessons, tempering rash action, and providing for those in need. In time, the decisions that led to Civil War would become unthinkable. That generation showed us how to heal the greatest rift this country has ever known, and how to be patient when success wasn’t immediate or suffered a setback. Then, as now, most Veterans were not consumed by the flames of war but strengthened – like hardened steel. It is important to remember it will take a long time to come to terms with the Post – 9/11 Era and its consequences. Not all of the lessons from this time have yet come to light. We still have the means to rescue those comrades who need us. We still have internal rifts that are not greater than the importance of a continued United States. Our Civil War counterparts definitely have another lesson for us: how to lay differences aside, coexist, and heal after conflict.
The author has worked as a professional Veteran’s representative since his honorable discharge from the military in 2008 for the PA Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Federal Veterans Benefits Administration. He holds a master’s degree in Human Security from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public an International Affairs. Part of his work included an internship with the Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Security Operations Institute as a contributor to stability operations recommendations and civilian casualty mitigation projects. He is also a proud new volunteer docent at the GAR Espy Post in Carnegie, PA.
[i] “The Civil War Facts.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm
[ii] Schaeffer, Katherine. “The Changing Face of America’s Veteran Population.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2021. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/05/the-changing-face-of-americas-veteran-population/
[iii] “Demographics of the U.S. Military.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2020. Accessed August 18, 2021. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/demographics-us-military
[iv] “The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” Library of Congress. Library of Congress, July 4, 2019. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/item/2019691097/
[v] Neu, Jonathan. “Pittsburgh: birthplace of the VFW”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2014/09/14/Pittsburgh-birthplace-of-the-VFW-Veterans-of-Foreign-Wars/stories/201409110302
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Veterans of Foreign Wars.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 1, 2020. Accessed September 19, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Veterans-of-Foreign-Wars